Letter from the Director: Hurricane Harvey

Photo credit: REUTERS/Nick Oxford

Dear Air Alliance Houston Community,

First, we would like to extend our deepest sympathy to the Houston families that have suffered the loss of loved ones and their homes during this storm.  While as a community we have experienced devastating events, we have also witnessed an outpouring of kindness to help those that have suffered the worst and will continue to need support in the weeks ahead.  As we all continue to recover from the storm and its damages, I wanted to provide some information about the status of air quality in Houston and our initial plans moving forward.

Air pollution is impacting public health in the Houston area.

So far, we have estimated that in Harris County a staggering 1 million pounds of pollution were released during the days immediately prior to and after the storm due to plant shut downs, start-ups, and malfunctions. This compares to roughly 300,000 pounds of air pollution during this same week in 2016. Moreover, we anticipate that this number will increase significantly because few facilities have reported their emissions events to state agencies and all will most certainly release even more pollution as they start-up operations during the next few weeks.  Over 40 pollutants were released during this time including some of the most harmful to health such as benzene, 1,3 butadiene, toluene, xylene, hexane, sulfur dioxide among others.  We have study after study showing the link between heart attacks, asthma attacks, and other public health impacts from increased air pollution.

We will likely never know the true extent of pollution levels during this time because 75% of stationary air monitors in the Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont areas were shut-down prior to and during the storm to protect those units.  But regardless, we do know that significant increases are a cause for concern because these toxics can linger for weeks impacting our most vulnerable populations like children, older adults, and those with breathing difficulties.

Our agencies are not providing adequate information.

Despite significantly less traffic on the road, the Houston area experienced four consecutive ozone action days (August 30 – September 2), one of which was the worst day for ozone in Houston this year.  This is likely due to increased emissions from facilities during this time.  Meanwhile, on September 3, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a statement that “…monitors are showing that air quality at this time is not concerning and local residents should not be concerned about air quality issues related to the effects of the storm.”  This type of oversimplification of these concerns should be stopped.  Similarly, the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ), failed to acknowledge the higher than normal emissions occurring during this period. Ozone pollution is a significant threat to public health particularly at the levels we have experienced during the past several days especially for vulnerable populations. Finally, Houston remains in non-attainment of the EPA’s ozone standard – yet the EPA failed to acknowledge and convey concerns about ozone in their public statement.

We are calling on the EPA to provide the public a more accurate picture about higher levels of air pollution occurring during this time — to admit the realities of the environmental impacts to our region, and that those impacts can be significant especially for children, older adults, and people with respiratory illnesses.

Chemical safety laws do not go far enough to protect people first.

Thousands of Houston area residents live nearby facilities that store dangerous chemicals.  The storm highlighted this imminent danger when hundreds of residents within 1.5 miles of the Arkema facility were evacuated from their homes, after what seemed to be conflicting advice from government officials and the company itself.  Despite multiple officials reporting that the air was “not toxic,” 15 first responders were hospitalized after inhaling fumes from the chemical plant.  Why wait to protect first responders and the community when science has already told us that the facility would not be safe for long?  AAH, along with several other environmental groups, were already involved in litigation against the EPA to stop delaying the implementation of the Chemical Disaster Rule, which would provide first responders and the public with more information about the hazards kept on site and better coordinate planning for disasters.

We are issuing a call to action for industry to work with us to better protect communities – to recognize that they must be a good neighbor and put people before profits.

Even during a natural disaster, we know that industry can do a better job of preventing emissions and chemical accidents by investing resources to install additional pollution and safety controls. Collectively, we need to hold industry, agencies, and public officials accountable for protecting communities from these types of preventable public health threats.

We have heard your concerns and are taking action.

During this time, we have taken a number of steps to support Houston area communities by providing information about air pollution, coordinating air monitoring with our environmental partners along with city and federal officials, providing information to the media about local environmental public health threats, and meeting with our environmental partners to develop a strategic plan forward.

  • Given the magnitude of need after the storm, AAH staff first focused on volunteering at various shelters and distribution centers in Houston, Galena Park, and Pasadena. During this time, AAH staff also began documenting areas where air quality issues have been reported and continue to share that information with the City of Houston, Harris County, TCEQ, and the EPA.  We encourage you to share our odor log so that we can rapidly respond to residents air quality concerns.
  • AAH has partnered with Environmental Defense Fund to conduct mobile air monitoring around the Houston Ship Channel. Preliminary findings indicated a benzene plume in Manchester.  Additional monitoring will take place during the remainder of this week. In addition to mobile air monitoring, AAH staff is working with Community Science Institute to facilitate air monitoring during the next few weeks in areas where residents have reported odor complaints that were not monitored using the mobile unit. We will share the results with the community once they become available.
  • We worked with a variety of media outlets to raise awareness about the air quality concerns facing Houston communities during and after Hurricane Harvey. We not only highlighted the pronounced public health threats from air pollution during the storm, but also the threat of having thousands of residents, the majority of which are communities of color and low-income, live with daily exposure to air pollution along with the more imminent threat to public health and safety when facilities like Arkema explode.
  • We will provide ongoing updates on our website where you can learn about air quality issues post-Harvey and help us in our efforts moving forward.

We will continue to be a strong advocate for clean air and public health.

In the immediate future, we will continue to raise awareness about the EPA’s delay of the Chemical Disaster Rule.  During the next several weeks, we will be working in partnership with other environmental groups to ensure local agencies and EPA are addressing environmental issues in Houston.  Finally, we will work with the environmental community to develop a strategic plan forward to advocate for policy changes needed at the national, state, and local levels to better protect public health during natural disasters and beyond.

Please consider a special donation to AAH now to support our air monitoring and advocacy efforts post-Harvey.  Or give by using your voice to call your city, county, and state elected officials and demand that they address environmental impacts from this storm – ask them to support the work of AAH and other groups in telling the community about the public health impacts.


Bakeyah S. Nelson
Executive Director